Saturday, December 01, 2012

The CHEERS script that could have ruined us

Happily, there's no writers strike this year (it being leap year).  One byproduct of a writers strike is that studios may shoot existing scripts but may not change them. So jokes can’t be fixed, lines can’t be tailored to actors, locations can’t be changed (too bad if an exterior gets rained out – you can’t move inside to a new location), and special effects have to be executed just as described (whether they’re possible or not).

In 1985 there was the possibility of a work stoppage. Back then our contract ran out March 1st, which was idiotic. We’d strike right as the TV season ended. So we’d be out for four months before the producers even knew it. All signs pointed to a peaceful resolution so life went on as planned. NBC asked for a last minute additional episode of CHEERS and David Isaacs and I were asked to write it. There was a big time crunch, the show needed to start filming the following week, so we had three days to write the script. The idea was we’d bang out a draft, turn it in on Friday, we’d all polish it on Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday it went into production.

We turned in the script on Friday afternoon and on Saturday negotiations blew apart. An immediate strike was announced.

So now they had to film our very first draft, as is, no changes. This was the first BAR WARS episode. Needless to say, show night was one of the most terrifying nights of my life. I thought, “this is where we’re discovered as frauds”. Amazingly, the show played well. Not as well as it could have, don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of places where jokes could be improved and turns could be better finessed. But on the whole the show worked and there was no noticeable drop in quality.

And there was a silver lining -- for maybe the only time in your career, the actors had HAD TO say our words, as written. It’s almost worth taking the assignment just for that.


Bill Steinkellner said...

I remember in the run throughs sitting there and when the scene ended the actors looked at us for notes but because of the strike we couldn't say anything so we just silently shrugged. If I had realized it was Levine/Isaac's career on the line I would have felt a lot better. There were almost as many Bar Wars beginning with that as Star Wars.

Max Clarke said...
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Max Clarke said...
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wackiland said...

Remember a major (at the time) sitcom producer telling me that the reason his pilot sold and ended up working as a hit series for so long was that it was shot during that same strike so nothing could be changed. :)

David from Boston said...

Ken, I cannot tell you what a kick I am getting reading these delicious insights into your business - and of some of my favorite shows (CHEERS, M*A*S*H, am I pushing it to say Big Wave Dave's?)

Mac said...

And there's the next book, Ken - all these stories from behind the scenes at Cheers, Frasier, Simpsons etc etc
I'd buy it - there's one copy sold before you've even written a word!

Mahesh said...

Here's a Friday question: How did the idea for the character of John Allen Hill come about? Did it relate to wanting to make use of Melville's (as a name, not necessarily as a location) more?

I'm specifically watching episodes with Hill now and he's a perfect foil for Sam, Melville's is right upstairs and he seemed like type of character that could have been around the whole run. All the ingredients for a great addition to the cast.

Unknown said...

Hi Ken,

hope you had a great Thanksgiving - here's a friday question. After I picked up Cheers on DVD and during the process of getting it on my iPad for the holidays, I visited the Wikipedia page about the show for naming the files.

"we may have been partly responsible for what's going on now, where if you miss the first episode or two, you are lost. You have to wait until you can get the whole thing on DVD and catch up with it. If that blood is on our hands, I feel kind of badly about it. It can be very frustrating."

What's your stance? Do you think you guys ruined sitcoms for a decade and a half because the serialized format was so successful? I know this came up on the blog before but to be honest I can't find the exact post. Maybe in light of Hulu and streaming as well as a decade of TiVo and now all networks streaming episodes online for weeks, it's time for an update on that topic, especially in the days where YouTube dumped 200m into "channels" like Nerdist or "Geek&Sundry" or "My Drunk Kitchen" and highly specialized ones about cooking 'n stuff I don't really watch, catered to the ADD plagued youth that can't seem to manage to keep their eyes on something for longer than three to eight minues.

Personal note: I for one love serialized stories - I know that JMS' "Babylon 5" was the show that introduced the idea to Sci-Fi and it's the reason why my favorite TV show of all time is Star Trek Deep Space Nine with its story-arcs, especially in the final season.

I think it makes "stuff" matter.

Oh and as a bonus round sidenote: why is it, while literally paid for the show, when I rip the DVDs to get the episodes on my iPad to watch while away from my PC traveling with my iPad, when I cicumventg the CSS algorithm (which is against the law here in Germany), that I feel dirty, while at the same time using iTunes to copy the resulting files on the iPad I can easily also sync a music file I "iTunes matched" the other day off of a 13 year old weirdly named MP3s I most likely got off Napster in 1999? is now something that's ok because I subcribe to iTunes Match - all the while knowing that the people I see credited for the show won't see a (Euro-) cent of my money?

And why is there never enough room on an iPad?

*shakes fist in anger*

Hope the month of lurking compensates for this longer comment :-)

John said...

So Shelly Long didn't ad lib the "Yo' mama" line at Gary? Actually, I kind of suspected that all along.

(And I suppose it cold have been worse. The union could have gone on strike in early January '86, after you and David had written a joke into the story about the space shuttle. That would have been worse than "The Greatest American Hero" debuting in March of '81 with the title character having the last name of Hinkley.)

Barry Traylor said...

This is a Friday question that I am sure has been answered before so bear with me.
Exactly what does an Executive Producer do? I noticed that J.J. Abrams is the Executive Producer on "Person Of Interest" and I would think he is a pretty busy fellow to be able to pay much attention to this show on a weekly basis.

By Ken Levine said...

Again, to explain, the RSS feed changed on purpose. Please just click through to the blog. It's just one click. Thanks much and sorry if there's any inconvenience.